Changes proposed to Defra's animal welfare labs

Defra is expected to announce that it will strip laboratory facilities from more than half of the UK’s regional veterinary centres in a bid to save £2.4m a year, a union representing scientists has warned.

Prospect, a union which represents scientists, engineers and managers, has said that proposals to close laboratories in eight of the 14 regional centres run by the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency (AHVLA) will put the fight against early diagnosis of animal diseases at risk, if it goes ahead.

The AHVLA is an executive Defra agency that safeguards animal health and welfare, and public health, through research, surveillance and inspection. Its veterinary labs are responsible for animal-specific health testing, including bovine TB, foot-and-mouth and swine fever, among other services.

The AHVLA said that it is reviewing its delivery network and discussing the proposals internally, but that no decisions have yet been made.

In the first phase of the proposed changes, laboratory services work would cease at Thirsk, Langford and Truro by the end of March 2012, with Aberystwyth, Carmarthen, Luddington in Warwickshire, Preston and Winchester expected to follow in April 2013. AHVLA intends to retain laboratory services workgroups at Penrith, Shrewsbury, Starcross, Bury St Edmunds, Sutton Bonington, Newcastle, Weybridge and Lasswade.

Geraldine O’Connell, Prospect national secretary said: “The country cannot afford the loss of so many skilled laboratory staff or the reduction in testing facilities. Worst of all, the closures will result in a poorer service to vets and the livestock industry, who will have to wait for diagnoses while samples are despatched around the country to the few remaining labs.”

However the AHVLA has denied that the changes rely on site closures to generate savings and said that consolidating laboratories would not affect testing services.

An AHVLA spokesman said: “The laboratory services work from the locations affected by the change would be transferred to the eight continuing work groups.

“It is already the case that AHVLA labs specialise in doing certain tests. Many tests now require dedicated equipment and expertise with strict quality assurance, so are not provided locally. There is a courier network to move samples around overnight. A recent survey showed that farmers and vets are satisfied with the service they receive and there is no reason why this should change when testing is consolidated into fewer locations.

“For serious notifiable diseases such as foot-and-mouth disease, avian influenza or bTB, testing is already centralised because of the high containment and specialist expertise required. There is no change proposed for these tests.

"The proposal does not affect other AHVLA services, including veterinary surveillance work, that is undertaken at all 16 of AHVLA’s laboratory network sites. "

The AHVLA was created in April 2011 when the Veterinary Laboratories Agency was merged with Animal Health.


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